PERHAPS BECAUSE no American citizen will ever encounter the problem, few of us are aware of the costs, paperwork, delays and even indignities the United States has lately inflicted on those who apply for a visa to visit this country. In some parts of the world, it is true, those applying for a U.S. visa -- even an ordinary tourist visa -- have long had to stand in line for days, travel great distances for an interview and pay fees that are exorbitantly high by local standards -- fees that are not refunded when applications are turned down. The procedure creates an enormous amount of ill will and resentment.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, the situation has grown worse. Organizations that support foreign scholars, American Chambers of Commerce abroad and immigration lawyers all report hearing of long delays, sometimes lasting many months, and of inexplicable refusals. Some of these cases concern travelers from the Middle East, as might be expected, as well as scholars working in fields now deemed to be especially sensitive. But not all of them. Russians and Chinese have been badly affected of late, and a few business visitors from places such as England and France have been stymied in their attempts to travel here too. Partly as a result, overall visa applications have dropped during the past two months by 30 percent. The State Department acknowledges the delays, and blames the problem on new and more stringent security requirements as well as on the greater involvement of other agencies, mostly the FBI and the CIA. This is part of the explanation, but not all of it.

The truth is that databases located in different agencies still are not coordinated, security checks are often duplicated and the procedure urgently needs streamlining. Recently, the General Accounting Office issued a report describing in detail the understaffing and underfunding of the U.S. consular service, as well as the sloppy, vague and inconsistent criteria used (or not used) to make visa decisions abroad in the past -- including the decisions to issue visas to 15 hijackers -- and the "weaknesses" that still remain. On the one hand, consular officials have long made the detection of potential illegal immigrants their top priority and were unprepared to shift their concerns to terrorism. On the other hand, a new "let's get tough" culture has slowed the process without making it more efficient.

Of course the security bureaucracy could not have been expected to prepare in advance for this change in policy, and no U.S. consular officer wants to be remembered as the one who stamped a visa in a terrorist's passport. Nevertheless, if the agencies involved do not focus harder on coordinating their databases and making the visa system more efficient, the United States will pay a price, and it will grow higher with time. Any business involved in the global economy needs to bring in foreign colleagues and workers. Many scientific research projects require international collaborators. Our tourist industry needs visitors; our universities benefit from the presence of foreign students. So do the rest of us. For relatively little money, foreign students help spread American values and American culture around the world.

At the same time, other improvements to our border security will be rendered meaningless if the visa regime is in chaos. By giving the neglected visa process the attention it deserves, the agencies involved can increase our security, prevent terrorists from slipping through the cracks and let in the legitimate visitors who contribute to our economy, our foreign policy and our image around the world.